Last week A&E debuted a new reality show, Hoarders, about people who engage in pathological accumulation, often due to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Last Saturday, Madison police found the body of a 70-year-old woman in the garage of a house described as "full of garbage," in some places stacked five feet high.
How big a problem is hoarding in Madison?
"We deal with it, and the Health Department deals with it," says George Hank, head of the city of Madison's Building Inspection Division. "These cases are very time-consuming."
Hank's division focuses on tenant hoarders, generally about one new case a week. The health department, meanwhile, handles owner-occupants. Both work cooperatively with residents, to get them to, er, clean up their acts.
"We use, for lack of a better phrase, the baby-steps approach," says Hank, explaining that tenants may be asked to just make a dent. "We've worked with people for a year to get things cleaned up, because we know this is a mental health issue."
When children are involved, the urgency increases. A few years back, a child protection worker joined Hank on a visit to a tenant with "huge storage and garbage issues" and laid down the law: "I'm coming back at four o'clock, and if this place isn't clean the kids are coming with me."
The dwelling, says Hank, "was substantially cleaner by the end of the day."
Bonnie Lynn, a sanitarian with Public Health Madison and Dane County, says her department currently has 16 hoarding cases, in various stages. Its authority is limited to public health concerns - odor problems due to rotting food or garbage, rodent or bug infestations, pet or human waste, faulty plumbing. Things like that.
"If it's just that they've got a lot of clothes or books," says Lynn, "we're not going to get involved." Referrals may be made to other agencies: animal control, building inspection, elder abuse, mental health and child protective services.
Lynn says most hoarders "are willing to work with us," so it's rarely necessary to use warrants to gain access to dwellings or levy fines. But some properties have been condemned.
Hank says some hoarders are grateful for the cleanup call: "We've gotten thank-you cards - 'I can't believe what I was living in.'" And Lynn feels compassion toward those who suffer from this "unique disorder."
"This is a coping mechanism for them," she says. "They just can't help themselves."